Doing Good: A Volunteer’s Story

Post by Ilana Bergelson

Ilana and Kate posing together at the gym

Ilana (right) and Kate (left) at the gym.

Having participated in a volunteer program called Service of Sight through Delta Gamma at the University of Chicago, I wanted to carry on the same type of community service following graduation. One moment when I knew I wanted to volunteer with the visually impaired was seeing the blind runners and their guides during the Boston Marathon. Their perseverance was amazing, and even though I was happy to volunteer in whatever way necessary, I secretly hoped I could be a running guide too. I heard about the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI) through the Delta Gamma alumni group, and with an upcoming training session and a location nearby, I knew I had to join.

Within a few weeks of training, MABVI paired me with a girl named Kate Katulak. To be perfectly honest, I was pretty nervous. My work in college hadn’t included volunteering directly with a blind or visually impaired person before, and I was worried about saying the wrong thing or showing some lack of knowledge. However, within minutes of meeting Kate, I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. Maybe it’s because we’re both from Ohio and so we’ve got that Midwestern friendliness going for us, or maybe it’s because were so close in age (I’m 25 and Kate’s 28), but Kate and I clicked right away.

I think one of the things that made me feel most at ease with her was how open she was with teaching me about all of the ways she functioned without her sight. She joked that I’d have to find the light switches since she didn’t need them, but hey – Kate said that made her a pretty awesome roommate because she keeps the bills low! She introduced me to her wriggly and friendly Guiding Eyes dog, Hosta. She showed me all of the cool auditory features on her phone and laptop. And she strongly stressed how I shouldn’t worry about accidentally offending her, which I quickly realized would have been hard to do anyway.

After a few meetings of helping her sort through some files she had been keeping, Kate and I moved on to an activity I had been dying to try with her: running. Even though I had never guided a runner before, Kate was very open to it. She and I were both training for races, and apparently we were both crazy enough to brave the New England cold to get our miles in. Thankfully, we were both also on the same page of rewarding ourselves with Starbucks after our runs.

Kate made sure I felt comfortable leading her – she reminded me of ways I could be helpful when we were walking to our running path, she wore a bright light so I could really see where we were going during our evening runs, and she explained the “shoe string” method of guiding that she preferred. Unfortunately, Boston snow storms have halted some of our running, but I know we’ll get back to it soon. After all, Kate has a full marathon in May that she has to train for!

Volunteering with Kate has been an incredible experience, and I can’t wait to see what the future months have in store for us!

Are you interested in volunteering for a visually impaired individual in your area? Fill out an online volunteer application form on MABVI’s website to sign up. Even an hour or two a week of your time can truly make a difference in someone’s life, and like Ilana, you might just make a new friend!

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About mabvi

Pressing Need The number of seniors with low vision is expected to double by 2030, as the “baby boomers” experience sight loss such as glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. Low vision makes it difficult to complete activities of daily living, puts elders at increased risk of falls, and complicates health care compliance. There is a pressing need for low vision services today more than ever, to ensure people with vision loss can continue to live the lives they want. Elders are the fastest-growing and most vulnerable population of persons with sight loss. Four of the five major causes of blindness are directly related to the aging process: age related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and cataracts. According to data published by the Commission for the Blind and the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness, there are an estimated 105,000 elders in Massachusetts with serious sight loss who cannot receive state-funded services because they are not “legally blind.” Nevertheless, their vision impairment is serious, and without appropriate intervention, can have a devastating impact on their independence.

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